Kong: Skull Island

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/09/17 20:04:16

"King Kong Lives!"
5 stars (Awesome)

The first thing that anyone planning on seeing “Kong: Skull Island” should know going into it is that it is not just another remake of the 1933 classic that is still one of the most potent and lyrical works of fantasy ever devised for the screen more than 80 years after it was released and which has already spawned two previous remakes—the 1976 version from producer Dino De Laurentiis that holds up surprisingly well today thanks to its wry sense of humor and charming performance from the then-unknown Jessica Lange and Peter Jackson’s 2005 version which is a tad overblown but which is still an entertaining homage to one of Jackson’s key cinematic influences. No, this one is closer in spirit to the oddball sequels and spinoffs that have cropped up from time to time over the years that have taken the giant ape into increasingly weirdo situations in the likes of “Son of Kong” (1933), which offered up a kid-sized take on the story, the immortal “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962), the slightly-less-immortal “King Kong Escapes” (1967) and the jaw-dropping “King Kong Lives” (1986), in which the big ape was brought back to life from his plunge from the World Trade Center with an artificial heart the size of a car and hooked up with a similarly-sized female ape who give birth to his child in the climax. In fact, with its crackpot merging of an old-fashioned monster mashup and, of all things, “Apocalypse Now,” it may even put the craziness of those efforts to shame and it certainly does so with far more energy, humor and invention than even the most optimistic of moviegoers could have possibly anticipated.

Set in 1973, during the period of America winding down its involvement in the Vietnam War, the film opens as Bill Randa (John Goodman), the head of a sketchy-sounding government agency known as Monarch secures government approval and funding for an expedition to a heretofore uncharted bit of land dubbed “Skull Island.” Among his requirements are a military escort that will help him and his men punch through a tiny break in the perpetual storm system surrounding the island, a tracker who can safely guide them through the unmapped territory and a photographer to document the findings. These positions are filled, respectively, by a rough-and-ready Army helicopter squadron led by Lt. Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), former SAS Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and self-described “anti-war photographer” Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), whose presence inspires a certain tension in Packard, who blames Weaver and her ilk for helping to turn the tide of public opinion against America’s presence in Vietnam. Against all odds, the helicopters make it through the storms to Skull Island but the first hint that this is not going to be a simple mapping expedition comes when Randa and his guys start dropping seismic explosives to the ground below, presumably in the hopes of stirring something up.

Something is certainly stirred up in the form of Kong himself, who starts batting around the helicopters like toys and scattering the interlopers—at least the ones that he doesn’t squish—at different points of the island. With only a couple of days to go before their only possible window of escape is gone, the survivors begin traversing the island while fending off attacks from Kong and a number of the even-more-ferocious monsters that make up its population—including giant stickbugs, spiders, pterodactyls and even a monstrous octopus for good measure. They also come across Marlow (John C. Reilly), a soldier and avowed Cubs fan who was shot down and stranded there since 1944 and who tries to explain the lay of the land while warning them of the nastiest creatures of all, dinosaur-like things that he has dubbed “Skullcrawlers,” albeit for no particular reason. As the journey progresses, Conrad and Weaver begin to realize that Kong, unlike the other beasts, is merely defending himself from attack and is not overtly hostile. Packard, however, doesn’t quite see it that way and vows to personally destroy Kong for killing his men—having already lost one conflict that saw the deaths of men who served under him, there is no way that he intends on going 0-2.

Over the last few years, there has been a tendency for studios putting the fate of their would-be franchise blockbusters into the hands of younger filmmakers who previous efforts were made for about the same amount of money that they would now be spending on catering alone—the thinking being that perhaps they imbue these new projects with some of the ingenuity and enthusiasm that they brought to their previous efforts. (Of course, there is also the fact that filmmakers of their lower commercial stature would be cheaper and less creatively controlling than the likes of Steven Spielberg.) Sometimes these combinations work quite well—with his take on “Godzilla,” Gareth Edwards came up with one of the very best films in the 50-year history of that franchise—and sometimes, as was the case when “Safety Not Guaranteed” auteur Colin Treverrow was given “Jurassic World,” the results have been dire personality-free messes. In the case of “Kong: Skull Island,” the result is a smashing success that is all the more remarkable because the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, got this gig off of his work on one of the most insufferable indie films of recent years, the painfully annoying quirkfest “The Kings of Summer.”

I have no idea what it was about his work on that film that led the producers to hire him for this but whatever instinct it was, it was the correct one because this is one of the more cheerfully entertaining mega-movies to come along in quite some time. Rather than the rather paint-by-numbers construction of most blockbusters, all of which seem to be following the exact same template to a T, this film has the kind of loose, improvisational feel to it that almost feels like a bunch of kids at play and just making things up as they go—or making it up as much as they can with millions of dollars in special effects surrounding them at any given time. There is a goofiness of tone here that is actually kind of refreshing in the way that it accentuates the essentially absurd concept without ever becoming too jokey for its own good. This is best exemplified by the Marlow character, who attempts to explain and justify the crazy things on the island that he has long since come to accept to the newcomers scores big laughs through, thanks in no small part to Reilly’s gregarious and hugely entertaining performance. The other actors also do well in finding the right tone to their characters—Hiddleston is stalwart and resolute in the closest thing to a straightforward part, Goodman is funny as the blustery fantasist coming face to face with things exceeding even his own imagination, Larson finds a way of subtly subverting the expectations of the role of the only woman in a cast otherwise populated by macho guys and a giant ape and Jackson’s gradual descent into righteous madness is so successful that when he vows that he will bring Kong down practically single-handedly, you halfway believe that he could actually pull it off.

Of course, bringing a bunch of smart and talented actors together and giving them a chance to spark off of each other isn’t that difficult a trick to pull off, though it has become depressingly less common over time in recent years. The thing that is most surprising about Vogt-Roberts’s direction here is just how deftly he handles the elaborate visual effects sequences, which is usually the area where the indie transplants wind up tripping themselves. Right from the start, a wartime-set prologue where Marlow and a Japanese counterpart crash on Skull Island and continue their fight to the death until they realize that their conflict is being literally overshadowed by something bigger than the both of them, he demonstrates a willingness to surrender to the kind of perverse glee that can come from watching bizarre-looking giant monsters tearing up the joint and he manages to keep that sense of enthusiasm running throughout the entire film. Those not predisposed to such things might think that the action beats might get a little monotonous but at every turn, he and his army of technicians have figured out how to deploy the chaos without becoming repetitive. The degree of creativity in regards to the creatures on display is also surprisingly and refreshingly high. Granted, we already have a pretty good idea going in of what Kong is going to look like (and Vogt-Roberts doesn’t make the cutesy mistake of only offering teasing glimpses for a while—right from the start, he is pretty much front and center throughout) but the other beasts are impressive as well—they may not especially be convincing as such things goes but they are perfectly suited for a movie of this type.

Fast, furious and insanely entertaining, “Kong: Skull Island” is giddy fun from beginning to end that will delight both casual moviegoers and devotees of all things Kong-related. It is a film that has been made with a lot of affection for monster movies of old without ever trying to condescend towards the silliness that made them so entertaining. Yes, it may be another deployment of one of Hollywood’s most familiar properties and yes, it may all just be a setup for another one of those gradually evolving multi-film “universes” that are all the rage these days (be sure to stick around after the end credits) but it is easy to overlook the more nakedly commercial aspects when the end result is as entertaining as this film is.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.